August 2018 - Page 2 of 2 - Roll For Combat: Your Friendly Neighborhood Actual Play Podcast

046: Caster Blaster

After months of chasing Devourer Cultists through the horrific jungles of Ukulam, the crew finally meet their nemesis… the mad lashunta mystic, Tahomen! Things don’t look good for our heroes, especially if the undead elf solarian Panelliar decides to joins in on the fight as well… uh-oh!

Also this week, Stephen has part two of his GM/PC tip! This week he explains how PCs should prepare before each gaming session.

And don’t forget to become a supporter of the podcast our Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/rollforcombat where you can help us while unlocking fun exclusive rewards for yourself!

Talking Combat 045: Raze The Roof

Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 045: One Is The Loneliest Number.

Before I get started on this week’s recap, I have to admit to some lingering pangs of envy – as I’m writing this, Ye Olde Social Media is buzzing with posts from GenCon, and boy it would be cool to be there. Unfortunately, GenCon tends to fall at a bad time of year work-wise, so I’m usually not able to get away – last time I went was probably 5 or 6 years ago, and even then, I got a little stink-eye from my boss at the time. In one of life’s little ironies, my son is going to be there with his mom, so perhaps he can enact my lifelong dream of diving into the dice bin at the Chessex booth like it was the ball-pit at Chuck E. Cheese.

We start this week with an unintentionally anti-climactic cliffhanger as the leader of the cultists we’re fighting blows up the roof… and mostly just succeeds in killing herself. Oops. Honestly, that’s something that’s the sort of thing that usually happens to us, so it’s nice to see it happen to the bad guys for once.

I have to admit I remembered this battle a little differently – it tends to be a few weeks between recording and air date – and thought the explosion was the climax of the fight; I actually forgot the sidekicks were still alive and the battle continued. Still, we were able to make reasonably quick work of them and Tuttle even collected a rare kill-shot.

A few observations:

First, I’m going to have to figure out some way to inject more offense into Tuttle, if that’s possible. I don’t know if that’s a new weapon, or maybe even a new weapon proficiency (longarms, maybe?), but doing 1d4 with an entry-level azimuth laser pistol is kind of a drag, and even the Overcharge doesn’t really add much. Yes, I suppose CHDRR’s damage also goes into my overall “column”, but still… I want to feel more useful than I am.

Take it with a grain of salt though – some of this is the ebb and flow of the adventure, and the restrictions of this adventure in particular. In general, challenges increase as you go through a segment of the adventure path, while your character stays the same unless you level up or find items that improve you. So there’s a little bit of truth to the idea that you get comparatively weaker as the adventure goes. Specific to this adventure, there’s no way to go back to town to spend on upgrades even if you wanted to. Nor does Amazon deliver this far out into the jungles of Castrovel.

The other main thing I wanted to ruminate on was the bad guy using suicide tactics against us. I suppose it’s fine on a roleplaying level – it makes perfect sense that an evil death cultist would blow themselves up to take you with them, especially if this is an underling and not the final boss – but I keep feeling like there’s something a little cheap about it. It’s hard to put my finger on it, something about the fact that it’s easier for GM-controlled creatures to do because the GM has quasi-limitless resources (in terms of additional encounters) whereas we don’t. If we set off an explosion that damages everyone just to take out an enemy, we have to carry the consequences until we reach the next break in the action. If the GM does it, the next encounter gets to start with a fresh slate.

On the other hand, it’s not like we can’t do it at all – remember me trying to blow up the akatas by dropping a grenade on our own position? It’s still available as a tactic; we just have to pick our spots more carefully. I also suspect “one final blast” is baked into the calculations for the encounter as a whole, so it probably helps explain why they weren’t all that hard to kill. Also, more to be fair to Steve, he also sometimes has enemies surrender instead of forcing us to grind them down to zero, so I suppose it all comes out in the wash eventually.

After dealing with the rest of the cultists, things kind of settle into investigation mode. We finally begin to get Dr. Solstarni back to normal by getting her into some climate-controlled armor and letting her talk to Wahloss, so that’s good. She gives us a little info about the cultist leader, named Tahomen, and Solstarni drops quite a few hints that he’s not actually here; that we probably have to go up the hill to the northwest to find him.

I guess I was surprised we didn’t find more… something; I figured that the Temple of the Twelve itself was the final destination. I was kind of assuming the final boss would be here in the temple (I was expecting some sort of basement with a ritual chamber or something), or we’d find something more definitively useful in the library, or (my personal pet peeve) that Dr. Solstarni would have some sort of tools for dealing with Panelliar. Instead, we get a bunch of mostly empty rooms and a trip to the ancient elven equivalent of the Hayden Planetarium. The astronomy dump seems like information that will be useful getting to the next step – meta-gaming: these feel like links to Book 3 – but doesn’t do us any good in the here and now.

And we find a trap, which Hirogi fairly easily detects and defuses. Which is kind of funny, because during the cultist fight, I actually considered looping around – through the trap area – to try and get flanking on them. I didn’t do it because I figured it would take way too many rounds and the fight would end before I got there. But if I’d done that, I probably would’ve set the trap off and melted my face off or something. Bullet dodged, figuratively and perhaps literally.

Toward the end of the episode, the gameplan seems to be to leave Solstarni and Wahloss here to start doing some research while we go up to the northwest and deal with Tahomen, the cultist leader. Maybe the ritual chamber we were expecting to find is up at the top of the hill, I guess? I guess we’ll find out next time. We seem like we’re in pretty good shape for a fight, though CHDRR took a bit of a beating and is around half-health, even with a short rest. And that seems to be where we’ll pick that up next week.

I’m probably going to punt on Steve’s GM tip. I don’t GM much at all, so I’m not in much position to improve on the tips he offered. I’ll probably jump in next week when he talks about what the players need to do to prepare. (Step 1: put on pants. Maybe.) The one thing I will say is that I’ve always felt like the GM gets a bit of extra deference whenever a group is deciding scheduling matters, and when you hear what Steve has to do to get ready… that’s why. Steve’s the one that has to do all the heavy lifting; for the most part, we just have to show up. Wearing the aforementioned pants.

I’m going to wrap this one up early. Between getting the Starfinder Armory and Pathfinder Playtest reviews ready in time for GenCon, I did a lot of writing a lot this week. It’s not so much that Steve keeps me chained to a desk in his basement and I’m applying for martyrdom; I just have this feeling that this week’s Talking is going to get swallowed up by bigger and better things.

So… if you’re going to GenCon, have a fantastic time, and if you’re not, hop on our Discord channel and join me in pouting at all the photos people are likely to be posting. Beyond that, see you back here next week where we have to be closing in on the end of Book 2 of Dead Suns.

SP01: Pathfinder Playtest Review

Make sure to read our review of Pathfinder Playtest Rulebook!

Welcome to a special edition of Roll For Combat, and we’re excited about this one because we’ve got a treat for you! We’re taking a break from our usual Starfinder gaming to bring you an inside look at the newly released Pathfinder Playtest!

Paizo has been getting their big update to Pathfinder ready for prime time, and we’ve been getting ready to hit the ground running here at Roll For Combat – we’ve read the rules, we’ve created a few characters, and even run through a few adventures. So pull up a virtual chair and listen to our impressions about the most anticipated Paizo release of the year!

And don’t forget to become a supporter of the podcast our Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/rollforcombat where you can help us while unlocking fun exclusive rewards for yourself!

Pathfinder Playtest Review – Back to the Future

Make sure to also listen to our one-hour discussion of the Pathfinder Playtest Rulebook on the Roll For Combat podcast!

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our weekly actual play podcast where Jason and the team are playing the Starfinder Dead Sun’s adventure path as well as the occasional Starfinder Society adventure as well.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last several months, you’ve probably heard about the Pathfinder Playtest. If you listen to our podcast, you’re probably enough of a Paizo fan to be eagerly awaiting it already. Nevertheless, for the benefit of my hypothetical cave-dwelling friend who stumbled on our website by accident, the Pathfinder Playtest (which I will sometimes call Pathfinder 2 or PF2 because, frankly, it’s less to type) is Paizo’s attempt to cull, streamline, distill… whatever-other-sort-of-action-verb you like… a decade’s worth of Pathfinder gaming into a new beginning. The goal is “different, yet familiar” – something that keeps long-time players happy and feels like Pathfinder, but that also welcomes newcomers aboard the SS Swearing At An Inanimate Object Because It Rolled Three Straight 1s.

Well, I have good news for you. We here at RFC know a guy who knows a guy, and we got a copy of the Playtest rules in advance, so we’re able to give you some first impressions so you know what to expect when they’re released into the wild. There may or may not have been a midnight exchange at a bus terminal, but frankly, the less you know about that the better.

At first glance, the content in the Playtest seems to represent a mix of approaches. There are some concepts that are truly new to Pathfinder and are going to take some getting used to – some things are genuinely being rebuilt from the ground up. Some things are more of a repackaging of what was already there, to create new and more interesting choices. And though they’d be reluctant to admit it because they want both games to stand on their own as equals, there are some places where Starfinder’s Greatest Hits make an appearance (encumbrance: bye-bye “gold pieces”, hello “bulk”).

But what does that actually mean where the rubber meets the road? (Or, if you prefer, “hammer meets the anvil”.) Well, we’re here to at least start answering some of those questions for you. Part of me wanted to go “big changes first, work our way down” but playing around with it a little more, I decided to follow the basic chapter structure of the book itself. So grab a beverage and settle in, because we’re gonna give you as much information as you can handle on this thing.

Writing Roleplaying Systems Into Existence

Before we get into the gory details, I feel like it’s worth looking at the big picture. In the roleplaying game world, change is inevitable. You build a game system, people play it and love it, and all is good. They clamor for more; you give them more. They keep playing that stuff too. And it’s great.

But….

Some of the new content contradicts the old content, and you didn’t realize it until three books later. Some of the new content is flat-out better than the old content, and nobody plays the old stuff anymore. There are a few things that never really worked quite right, but they’re too cool to errata out of existence. You think of a new mechanic six years in that’s really the way it (whatever “it” is) should’ve worked since Day One. If we’re being totally candid, there are problems that managed to exist for a decade without EVER being truly addressed. And you look up a decade later at a Jenga Tower of Strangeness (not a new wondrous item… yet) that probably works for the die-hards who understand how you got there and can house-rule around the awkward parts, but isn’t very inviting to the new player sitting down at the table for the first time.

At some level, what’s most exciting about PF2 is that it’s starting over with a real framework that can be expanded in a modular fashion, and not just a series of incremental additions attached with duct tape. In saying that, I don’t want to bag on original Pathfinder, but Pathfinder was a decade of upgrades to 3.5, which already had miles on the odometer when Paizo came into existence. Even Paizo’s best ideas had to be shoe-horned into what was already there. (This is something Paizo people have commented on interviews, so it’s not like I’m throwing them under the bus or anything by saying so.)

I also know that in the larger gaming community, 4th Edition made the idea of a “framework” a dirty word for a while by going too far in the opposite direction and making everything TOO similar. But there’s value to building on a solid foundation that can be expanded easily – game design has come a long way since Gygax did his thing. You want something that can grow seamlessly so that the new stuff and the old stuff fits together. Heck, you even want an environment that offers GMs a path to homebrew their own content without a lot of pain. A coherent system is what gets you there.

So we’re going to delve in and take a look at that system in what is hopefully the right level of detail. We recognize there’s a lot of curiosity, but we also don’t want to make your eyes glaze over, either. The easiest way to do this is to follow the structure of the book, which means we start with the first chapter…

A-B-C. Easy As 1-2-3. (Ancestry)

You’ll hear a lot about the “ABC” character creation system – Ancestry, Background, Class. The idea is that they’re trying to let you build a story for your character rather than just select options off the buffet. Additionally, they’re trying to steer people away from the cookie-cutter character by offering more choice along the journey.

Ancestry is race, only they found a word that starts with “A” to fit the theme. All of your traditional Pathfinder core races are here, with two caveats: first, goblins are upgraded to a core race; second, half-orcs and half-elves are no longer independent races but are considered a variant of humans. You unlock those by creating a human and selecting the appropriate ancestry feat for “half-whatever”. Your ancestry gives you starting hit points, a few stat adjustments, languages, movement speed, enhanced senses… all the usual stuff.

BUT… you also get an ancestry feat at Level 1, which is the first major change – race is no longer an attribute you pick at Level 1, translate into a package of skills, and forget about for the rest of the game; ancestry is an ongoing component of character development where you select a feat every 4 levels (1st, 5th, 9th, 13th, 17th). So your elf and my elf may already be subtly different based on which ancestry feats we took.

Backgrounds are back-stories for your character – what they were doing before they became adventurers. At the risk of letting the cat out of the bag, they’re a lot like Starfinder’s “themes”. Yes, the min-maxers in the crowd will be happy to hear backgrounds come with stat bonuses and train you in skills, but they also fill in the flavor of your character. Unlike ancestry, backgrounds are one-time setup choices; you don’t go back and revisit your background later.

I’m going to dig deeper into class in a moment, but at a high level, I’ll start by talking about the “feat-ification” of class skills. In Pathfinder, you pretty much picked your class (and maybe variant or archetype) at Level 1, and that pretty much dictated what you would receive every time you leveled up. Every rogue got Sneak Attack at Level 1, Evasion at Level 2, Trap Sense at Level 3, etc. In Pathfinder 2, there are still some static class benefits (rogues still get Sneak Attack out of the gate, for instance), but most of the class skills are now considered class feats, and you have multiple choices at various points in the process. Your rogue and my rogue may look and play quite differently based on which class feats we select along the way.

When it comes to actually “rolling” a character’s stats, ABC borrows heavily from Starfinder’s character creation system. I’ll be speaking of “boosts”, which are generally 2 point increments unless you go over 18. You start with 10s across the board. Ancestry lets you boost two scores and gives you a penalty in one (except for humans, who don’t receive the penalty). Background gives you boosts to two scores, your class gives you a boost to the primary score of that class, and you have four free bonus boosts. The only real restriction is that you can’t multi-boost the same stat within the same step – so you can’t put both your ancestry boosts or all four of your free boosts into the same stat. You can voluntarily lower scores for role-playing reasons, but you don’t get points back to use elsewhere – it’s not a point-buy system.

Why Don’t You Call Me Sometime, When You Have No Class? (Class)

I don’t know quite how to write about classes without writing a book about them, which… Paizo already beat me to the punch on that. If I get too granular I’ll be at this for hours; if I stay at too high a level, I’m not sure I’m telling you anything useful. So I think I’ll use this part to call out a few things that leapt out at me as interesting.

One of the single most dramatic changes for the better is to the classic sword-and-board (or “bored”) fighter. Remember “Beef Steelfist”, that fighter that was your first or second character, but you ditched him because it got real old watching everyone else summon tentacles or critting for 9d6 and you were still just swinging your sword? Now, he’s the undisputed master of clogging up the battlefield and protecting your buddies. He’s got a tactical role to play. First, fighters are the only class that gets Attacks of Opportunity as a class skill; a few others can take it as a feat, but fighters have it in their DNA. Additionally, a shield goes from an abstract bump to Armor Class to an active defense system – you can use one of those actions to raise your shield and if you get hit, the shield takes the hit for you. (Though the shield eventually breaks, leading to a three-beers-in discussion at PaizoCon imagining a fighter pulling a wagon of spare shields through the dungeon with him.). Put those together, and the fighter becomes a defensive machine.

I’m noticing that they did away with the notion of hybrid casters – either someone is a caster, or they’re not. Rangers and paladins no longer have the half-assed “well, you get a few spells, but not enough to really be useful” thing going on – pallies get a very specific subset of powers purchased as feats (rebranded as “Champion Powers”), and rangers pretty much lose casting entirely in favor of more woodland skills. Bards, on the other hand, get upgraded to full caster status with a full range of Level 1-10 spells.

The sorcerer is an interesting case, insofar as they don’t necessarily have to be arcane casters anymore. Backing up a minute, there are four different magic types, each of which has a primary dedicated caster class – arcane (wizard), divine (cleric), primal (druid), and occult (bard). Those are the four “traditions” of magic. The sorcerer’s tradition is derived from the bloodline he or she chooses, so they could end up as any of the four.

I love monks, so I’m excited about this one – the monk gets a little less stats-hungry, since you can now select STR or DEX as a primary stat. Do you want to be Luke Cage (What? He’s kind of a monk!) or Iron Fist? Also, some of the damage mitigation is farmed out to an “unarmored defense” skill, which Monks already start at Expert level.

I don’t necessarily want to just sit here reciting factoids about every class, but those are some of the things that struck me on the first read. I’ll also specifically come back to casters in more detail when we hit the chapter on Spells. For now, moving on.

What I Do Have Are A Very Particular Set Of Skills (Skills)

Most of the skills themselves are what you would normally expect from Pathfinder, though they took this opportunity to streamline things a bit. It does look “Perform (X)” skills are crunched down to a single “Perform” skill, and the “Knowledge (X)” skills are distributed out to other skills – “Recall Information” is an available action under several other skills. The “Craft (X)” skills are just “Crafting”, and some of the key skills (Alchemical Crafting, Magical Crafting) are just feats available once you have that skill. But the basics are still what you would expect them to be.

Buried on page 153 is something very interesting – a table for using skills to make money during downtime. Basically, between adventures, you would work with the GM to identify a job your character could perform and the GM sets a DC for the task. You then roll a skill check and if you make it, you make a certain amount of money for the amount of downtime you use.

The thing I really wanted to talk about is how you progress skills as a character. The days of picking 4-8 skills to rank up each time you level are gone. Begone, busywork! Skills now follow a tiered system: Untrained (roll modifier of -2), Trained (0), Expert (+1), Master (+2), and Legendary (+3). Your modifier in a skill is your character level, the relevant stat modifier, and an adjustment based on which tier you’re in. That’s it.

You get new skill bumps as you level where you can either train something you haven’t trained yet or move an existing skill to the next rank. Generally, these come every other level after 3rd, and there are a few restrictions – can’t take a skill to Master until 7th, can’t go to Legendary until 15th. There’s also the concept of “signature skills” being your most vital ones – and only your signature skills can go past a certain level (though there are ways to designate new signature skills as you go).

One thing that jumped out at me – what’s the mechanism for adding new languages? It seems like the main way – other than magic items – would be to take the “Multilinguist” general feat, which gives you two new languages each time you select it.

Well, what’s a general feat, you say? That brings us to…

The Thrill Of Victory, The Agony Of The Feats (Feats)

We’ve already introduced the concepts of ancestry feats and class feats. This chapter gives us a look at general feats and skill feats. General feats are obviously feats that are available to anyone; skill feats also technically general feats, but you have to actually be trained in the skill required for their use.

Your old pals like Toughness and Incredible (formerly Improved) Initiative are here but there are some new faces as well, particularly amongst the skill feats. There’s Trick Magic Item, which lets you attempt to use a magic item you normally wouldn’t qualify to use. There’s also Legendary Negotiator under the Diplomacy skill, which actually looks like it gives you a chance to stop a battle IN PROGRESS to try and negotiate. Battle Medic, based on Medicine, is an interesting one: if you succeed, it lets you do in-combat healing without spells, but if you roll a critical failure, you actually do damage to the person you’re healing. I’m imagining the first time someone goes to heal a fallen comrade and accidentally kills them – “sorry, was that your aorta?”. And OK, there’s also “Scare To Death” which lets you use your Intimidate skill to literally try to kill someone by frightening them. I thought the skill feats would be kind of boring, but there’s some surprisingly fun stuff in here.

Now that we’ve discussed all the different types of feats, I feel like this is the right time to mention this: I’m wondering if what they’ve done with feats might be a little bit of a polarizing issue. Obviously, in Pathfinder, feats were just feats, and you could pretty much take whatever you wanted, as long as you met the restrictions. Putting them in different silos like this may be a little controversial. I know WHY they did it – it forces people away from min-maxing and makes them create more well-rounded characters if they have to use a variety of different feats. Otherwise, some people are just going to max out combat feats and be done with it. On the other hand, I do worry that some people might feel penned in and feel like their choices are being artificially restricted. I guess we’ll have to see how it plays.

Stone Knives And Bearskins (Equipment)

There are a few interesting nuggets in this chapter, but the single most interesting is the crafting system. One of the bigger weak spots in Pathfinder was that it was way too easy to make things – unless there was an exotic material component, it was “here’s half the cost of the item… gimme”. Pathfinder 2’s crafting throws in a few wrinkles borrowed from MMOs that make it a bit more of a challenge.

First, you have to learn or buy a formula for the item before you can make it. There’s no “I intuitively know how to make a wand of cure light wounds” anymore. That said, if you have one of the items in question, you can try to reverse-engineer the formula by disassembling it. And as long as you don’t critically fail and lose the raw materials, you can then try and remake it if you succeed.

In the case of some items – particularly weapons and armor – you also have to deal with different material qualities. This kind of extends the whole idea of “masterwork” gear, but an item has to be Expert, Master, or Legendary quality to be enchanted (and higher level materials can hold more powerful enchantments).

The other wrinkle that makes the system more challenging is that items (and their formulas) have an associated rarity, and rare items won’t just be available in every town you visit. This idea that you can just go to the local Bob’s Magic Emporium and they just happen to have every magic item you’d be interested in always seemed like a bit of a kludge.

We’ll revisit all of this when we get to the later chapter on magic items – put a pin in it for now.

A couple other things worth calling out. The first is that the silver piece has replaced the gold piece as the standard coin of the realm. The whole economy has dropped down one denomination and a gold piece is now a lot of money. Worth remembering.

Also, as I alluded to earlier, Pathfinder 2 is going to be making use of the same encumbrance system Starfinder uses. If you haven’t played or listened to our podcast, here’s the basics of how it works. First, specific weights are done away with in favor of units of “bulk”. So a weapon might be 1 bulk; a particularly heavy set of armor might be 3 or 4 bulk, etc. Encumbrance is really simple to calculate: it’s 5+ STR modifier to be encumbered; 10 + STR modifier and you have to start dropping things. That number seems small, but this is offset by the fact that many items are considered Light bulk (L), and it takes 10 items to make one unit of bulk. (And that 10 is always rounded down, so you can have 9 healing potions and it counts as nothing.) The best part is it’s trivially easy to manage – no more “hold on, I have to lighten up by 8 gold pieces to get back to medium encumbrance”. (And yes, some items are considered negligible bulk and don’t count toward encumbrance at all.)

Let’s All Go To The Lobby (Intermission)

This isn’t a chapter. I just realize we’re throwing a lot of stuff at you, and wanted to give you a chance to catch your breath. Grab a smoke, take a walk around the block, throw a ball with your dog… whatever you do. The second half of the book will be here when you’re ready.

Pick A Card… Any Card (Spells)

This chapter is a big one, both physically – it’s the single largest chapter at almost 100 pages – but there’s a lot of meaty changes for casters.

The first is the ability to “heighten” spells by putting them into a higher-level slot. One easy example is something like Summon Nature’s Ally, where the slot you use determines how powerful the beastie you summon is. For direct damage spells, it tends to be more of a +N thing where you get an extra damage die for each level you add. (I heartily encourage players to yell “IT’S OVER 9000!” at their GM as often as possible when they heighten a spell because that will never get old.)

The ideas under the hood aren’t that revolutionary – it’s “just” streamlining multiple versions of the same spell with a layer of what used to be metamagic feats on top – but the net effect is far more powerful and flexible. Among other things, it means you don’t have to keep replacing the same spell multiple times in your career, which will hopefully lead to more diverse casters.

Another cool thing is that cantrips now scale automatically to the highest level you can cast. One of the things I actually really liked about 4E was the notion of “at-will powers” – that casters would never TOTALLY run out of spells and always have a few spells they could cast. Pathfinder cantrips gave you the idea of an at-will spell, but the damage spells didn’t scale, so doing 1d3 frost damage became worthless after a few levels. Now, a cantrip casts at the highest spell level you have access to, so (for example) a Level 10 caster with access to 5th level spells will be able to do a slightly more useful 2d8 + (modifier) points of damage.

They also gave casters Level 10 spells, but confession time: after an initial surge of excitement, I’m in the minority that felt like this was more of a This Is Spinal Tap “these go to 11” moment. OK… they’re the same spells, you just re-swizzled the lists so 10 is the top level. “Well it’s one louder, isn’t it?” Also, there just aren’t that many of them – each class only starts with 3 Level 10 spells (OK, occult casters get a fourth). I get the feeling heightening lower-level spells up to 10 is going to be more common.

As far as stuff that specifically caught my eye – primal casters seem like they have the most fun stuff here. They can turn into a dinosaur. Or a dragon. When they hit their Level 10 spells, they can turn themselves into a kaiju (Nature Incarnate) or turn their party-mates into a herd of mammoths (Primal Herd). Druid is looking pretty darn fun right about now. On the other hand, divine casters get Weapon of Judgment, where a giant ghostly version of your deity’s chosen weapon materializes out of nowhere and starts slapping people around with force damage. And I’ll have to read my contract and find out if I’m allowed to talk about necromancy, but the occult school offers us Vampiric Exsanguination, where you “draw blood and life force from creatures and shoot it out through your outstretched arms.” You know. For the goth bards in the house.

The spell chapter ends with Rituals, which are non-combat spells for the spell-less – they tend to be based on skills rather than magic ability, so they can actually be cast by non-casters. This is where you find stuff like Consecrate, Geas, and… the big one here… Resurrect. Yes, you can bring back a dead party member without any caster party members. It’s a little pricey (75g x character’s level, max 11th) but it’s an option.

Assistant To The Regional Manager (Advancement And Options)

Not sure there’s too much to look at here. There are some useful archetypes; particularly the multiclass archetypes for people who want to dabble in other classes. The material on animal companions lives here, which… seems a little out of place, but I guess it needed to be somewhere. And we (re-)introduce the gods of Golarion for the umpteenth time… “oh hi Desna!”. But let’s be honest… nothing that’s burning a hole in my pocket. I’d rather move on to…

The Game’s Afoot (Playing The Game)

There’s a lot of important stuff here because it’s the nuts-and-bolts chapter of how to run combat, and combat is the engine that ultimately drives the game. On the other hand, this is probably going to be sort of a grab bag where I’ll just hit on a bunch of different things without going into a lot of detail on any one thing. Welcome to the info-dump portion of our program.

The 800-pound gorilla of this conversation is going to be the changes to the action economy. The days of full-round, standard, move, swift, free… yeah, say goodbye to all of that. Now everything is an action and you get three of them. And I get that there’s a visceral “that’s too simplistic” reaction when you first hear that. I felt it myself before I sat down and played the Playtest at PaizoCon.

But here’s the thing. They didn’t really get rid of complexity, they just moved it to the other side of the equation by making a lot of your powers/abilities/etc. more flexible. Now, some of your abilities can be powered up by putting more actions into them. Take the old standby, the cleric’s channel: at one action, it’s a touch heal; two actions change it to a ranged heal, and three actions give you a group burst. So not only is there still room for complexity, but it comes with more interesting choices for the player. I actually think that this is going to work really well over the long haul.

And I know what you’re thinking: why don’t people just stand in front of each other and do three attacks every round? Well, besides the fact that the opponent can… you know… move, there’s the fact that each consecutive attack takes a -5 penalty, so good luck hitting that third attack with a -10.

If there’s a 400-pound gorilla, it’s that attacks of opportunity are going to be far less of a dominant force in combat. Paizo noticed that the fear of AoO’s locked a lot of combats into a dance of five-foot-steps – square-dancing with cutlery. In particular, mobile melees like rogues and monks faced a real uphill climb to use their abilities effectively. Now, only a few characters and some (but not all) monsters will be able to do Attacks of Opportunity, and the hope is that it will open up the battlefield a little more.

“Now the 200-pound gorilla”… OK, I’m going to stop with the rapidly-shrinking gorillas. Either I’ll run out of gorillas entirely, or we’ll end up at a 4-ounce gorilla, and you’ll all be saying “well, that’s actually kind of cute, can I have one as a familiar?”. (NOTE TO STEVE: 4-ounce gorilla plushie on the RFC store, ASAP. The kids will love it.)

You do need to know about critical hits and critical failures. First, critical misses are going to play an increased role in Pathfinder 2 – they’d existed around the edges when it came to skills checks, and some GM’s homebrewed them into their campaigns, but Pathfinder 2 makes the critical miss more integral to the game. Also, there’s going to be more than one way to get critical hits and misses. Yes, natural 20 or natural 1 will still get the job done; on the other hand, making your roll by more than 10 or missing a negative roll by more than 10 will also serve as a trigger. So if you roll a 16, modified to a 32 against a 14 armor class, that’s still a crit. (Reading the fine print though, if a natural 20 would not normally be a success, it becomes a success but not a critical success; similarly, if a task is so easy that a natural 1 plus mods would succeed, a natural 1 would be a failure but not a critical failure.)

The good news, combat-wise, is it will probably make trash fights go faster. If you can get crits from modified 14s or 15s, that’ll end those fights a lot quicker. But that same logic applies to your enemies – so if you go into a battle where YOU’RE clearly outmatched (like trying to farm a dragon at low levels), the bad guy’s going to probably get some easier-than-normal crits and you’re going to have a bad time.

Let’s also talk about death. Massive damage (2x your hit points) is still an insta-kill. Certain spells have a death effect which is also automatic. Anything else, you are unconscious, at zero hit points, and placed at the beginning of a four-stage countdown. You start at “Dying 1” and have to make Fortitude saves every round – if you fail, you move to Dying 2, Dying 3, and then Dying 4. Dying 4 is dead (though there’s a feat that allows you to go to Dying 5). And ohbytheway, a critical failure ups the dying counter by 2. So don’t roll a 1. Any successful save returns you to life at 1 Hit Point.

Lastly, Hero Points are another informal/homebrew thing that’s being formalized in Pathfinder 2. It’s fairly common for GMs to have a policy of rewarding Hero Points to players who do something exceptionally cool or roleplay a situation particularly well. PF2 formalizes this. A player can hold up to 3 Hero Points at a time, each player starts with 1 Hero Point at the start of each game session (yes you read that right… game session, not level), and they can be used in the following ways:

  • 1 Hero Point can revive from any point in the death cycle, even if you use it when you fail the save that would kill you. Pretty good motivation to keep at least one Hero Point handy at all times.
  • 2 Hero Points can be used to re-roll a single D20 roll. (If the second roll fails the check you’re trying to make, you get back one of the Hero Points you spent on it.)
  • 3 Hero Points lets you take an additional action (or reaction).

Oh Captain, My Captain (Game Mastering)

I think the most generally relevant thing from this chapter is introducing the three game modes. To some degree, this just creates some formal structure around the natural flow that already exists, but Pathfinder 2 breaks the game down into three game modes:

  • Encounter Mode: This is generally combat, though I suppose a campaign could break a social encounter or skill challenge into real-time as well. Everything has to be explicit, rolls have to be performed for most things, players need to make decisions quickly. Also, even if it’s not combat, encounter mode tends to work best in formal turns, so that no one person can dominate the action. In short, the game’s in high gear.
  • Exploration Mode: you’re in a potentially dangerous location where something could happen, but not every second of action has to be on high alert. People can kind of do what they want unless they do something that would move the game into encounter mode. Some dice roles can be fudged in the assumption that “you look around until you find it”.
  • Downtime Mode: the time spent in safety, usually between adventures. This is the mode where you can have people hand-wave hours or days spent on a particular task. Sometimes downtime mode tasks can even be performed outside the game – i.e. working on leveling up your character or preparing a shopping list between sessions.

The rest of the chapter is mostly tips for fairly novice GMs – how to assign experience and treasure, how to set up encounters, what sorts of special rules are involved with different terrains and environmental conditions. I’d have to defer to Steve as to whether there are any particularly important gems to discuss in here.

Shiny! (Treasure)

And now we come back to magic items and crafting.

I feel like one of the polarizing things in this section is the concept of Resonance Points, as relates to magic items. Magic items in original Pathfinder used to be a bit of a free-for-all, and wands in particular arguably got a little out of hand. (One can imagine a mule loaded down with Cure <X> Wounds wands and the party burning through 2 or 3 wands after each fight like they were those little fluorescent glow sticks.) Now, characters have Resonance Points (your character level + CHA bonus, so now everyone can get some benefit from Charisma) as a daily resource that are used to “power” magic items. The general rule of thumb is that things you use with a charge, it’s one resonance point per use; for things you wear, it’s one resonance point at the start of the day to “invest” it (i.e. put it on and power it up).

(I feel like I have to mention the wizards of the Harry Potter world would be absolutely screwed in this system. You got about, 10, 12 Expelliarmuses before you’re dry, kid… make the most of them.)

The positive of the system is that it comes up with a use for Charisma beyond “face of the party” stuff and prevents magic item use from getting too silly; the bad is that there could be places where you can’t use a simple healing wand because no one has resonance points left – there was something appealing about “fire and forget” consumables, even if it could be abused.

Slightly less controversial is the section on runes. Basically, runes are the mechanism that power the pluses and effects (flaming, freezing, etc.) on your armor and weapons. “Potency” runes are what give an item its plus; property runes are what makes that sword flaming or vorpal or whatnot. You can replace runes with more powerful ones, though – here’s the MMO-ish part – certain runes have an item quality restriction – i.e. you can’t make a +5 weapon out of an off-the-rack sword. Runes can also be transferred between weapons (for the frugal adventurer, it saves money over having to get a new one), or can be stored on and recovered from runestones. (Again, if you’re following Starfinder at all, runes are kind of like weapon seals.)

Set aside game mechanics: I like this on a storytelling level. There’s rich history in the fantasy genre of heroes having named swords that travel with them throughout their journeys, so the idea that you can keep upgrading your weapon and keep it with you from Level 1-20 has some appeal. After all, Gandalf didn’t trade in Glamdring because he found a +3 sword in the next dungeon.

Keep in mind that runes follow the same rules as other craftables – you have to find or buy the formula for creating a rune before you can use it, so it’s not just a simple matter of deciding you want your sword to be +3 and doing it. Heck, finding formulas might even create some interesting story hooks for possible adventures: you want that flaming rune? I guess you’ll have to go investigate that dwarven armory that was overrun by goblin hordes. We mainly play adventure paths in our group, but this could be fertile story material for a group that mostly runs homebrew content.

So What’s It All Mean?

I could keep going, grabbing thinner and thinner slices of rules to focus in on, but I don’t know what people are going to care about most, and I suspect you get the general idea. There’s a lot of stuff here, and it’s an interesting mix – something old, something new, something borrowed (from Starfinder), something blue (dragons, prismatic walls… the usual suspects). I think it’s all going to work out, but we’ll know more when we roll up our sleeves and start playing in the new system.

And that’s the big thing to keep in mind. The operative word is “Play-TEST”. The first few months of this are literally going to be testing mode. The first adventures are designed to stress-test particular aspects of the game, and I’m sure some things may not work as they originally planned them. So be patient, have fun with it and remind yourself that being in on the ground floor of something new could be exciting. When this hobby started out, you could be a wizard or an elf, but not both. Now the company that makes the game is inviting you to help be a part of making it better. To quote Roger Sterling from Mad Men, “you’re an astronaut.”

And if you really have to be a cynic… just don’t sell your PF1 library on Craigslist just yet.

Pathfinder Playtest is available for free at http://www.pathfinderplaytest.com.

Starfinder Armory Review – We Do We Get Those Wonderful Toys?

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our weekly actual play podcast where Jason and the team are playing the Starfinder Dead Sun’s adventure path as well as the occasional Starfinder Society adventure as well.

The Starfinder Armory is finally here. If the Alien Archive and Pact Worlds releases were mostly for the benefit of the GMs, the Armory is very much a book for the players – a world of new toys for your characters to play with.

The first big-picture question everyone’s going to ask: “is there cool stuff I’m going to want to run right out and buy for my character(s)?”. (Or, if you’re an alt-aholic like me, “make you want to roll up a new character that can use that piece of gear”.)

Short answer: yes, but that would either make for a really short review, or it would turn into that Chris Farley SNL sketch where I just list pieces of gear at random and say “that was cool” after each one. Neither approach strikes me as very satisfying.

Instead, I’d like to approach this from the standpoint of the questions I had in my head when I got to sit down with this book. I will probably come back around at the end and give you the Farley list anyway, but for the moment, let’s focus on a few more specific things that were on my mind.

GENERAL QUESTION 1: Does the Armory truly break new ground and expand the game content, or is it just N+1 versions of what’s already there? Particularly for a game system as new as Starfinder, I’d expect to see some new ideas getting introduced, not just “well this is the gun you already had but the laser beams are green now!”.

I’m going to go ahead and give the Armory a solid passing grade on this front. There’s nothing revolutionary – they didn’t backdoor a new class in or add an entirely different form of combat – but you wouldn’t expect that from an Armory book anyway. This is about the gear. What you do get is some good solid extension of the ideas contained in the Core Rulebook.

Take weapons. Yes, you get the MORE – particularly on melee weapons, where they’ve dramatically increased the options for energy-based melee weapons – but you also get weapons with the “conceal” trait, that can be more easily smuggled into places, or the “integrated” trait which lets them be mounted into an upgrade slot instead of taking up a hand. (There are even a few options for tail weapons for your vesk and ysoki friends!) There are profession weapons that can both act as a tool for use in the profession, and ranks in the profession can be used to obtain proficiency in the weapon. Weapon accessories give you the common real-world mods – scopes, silencers, and so on. Want a grip to hold your flashlight or a bipod for that sniper rifle? Done, and done.

Some concepts from core get more fully fleshed out in the Armory. Weapon materials are one such concept – the Core Rulebook listed the three traditional Pathfinder choices (adamantine, cold iron, and silver), but they’re almost all about overcoming damage reduction. The Armory adds six new options and the effects are more dynamic. Abysium is slightly radioactive so weapons made from it can apply the Sickened condition. Dzejet is more receptive to magic, making it easier to apply seals; armor made from it is caster-friendly, increasing the range and duration of spells. Horacalcum has weird space-time properties – on a weapon, it can create the Staggered effect; on armor, it helps with initiative checks and saves against Staggered.

Powered armor is another thing that goes from more of a placeholder treatment to a fully fleshed out category of gear. The Core Rulebook’s coverage of powered armor was kind of sparse – “here are five rather generic chassis options; customize them as you see fit”. It felt like they knew powered armor was something that was supposed to exist in a sci-fi game system (see also: Ripley cracking alien queen skulls with a cargo loader), but they hadn’t really decided what to do with it yet. Is it just the next armor after heavy? Is its own thing somewhere between vehicle and armor? The Armory gets deeper into it (17 new options, though a few are variants of each other) and comes up with options flavored for different cultures and different applications – here’s one that’s good for underwater use, here’s one that’s more oriented toward casters, this one has tools for cold weather environments. (And with the Stag-Step Suit, here’s one if you want to wear antlers on your head and feel like teleporting, because… well, who doesn’t?)

For another example, consider our friend the grenade. In the Core Rulebook, grenades were mostly about damage – how much and what type. In the Armory, they lean into a broader range of effects with hybrid grenades. A Diminisher Grenade can reduce the duration of ongoing effects in an area, a Microbot Grenade creates (essentially) swarm damage in an area, a Summoning Grenade warps in a creature to fight for you (Pokemon Go, but in reverse!). But the piece de resistance are Wonder Grenades. Roll a d100 and random stuff happens. Maybe everyone turns invisible! Maybe it creates a vacuum in the area! My personal favorite… maybe the area is filled with adorable, harmless Diminutive animals (tribbles?) that create difficult terrain.

In the “totally new” (at least in terms of usable items) bucket, we have the necrograft. Necrografts appear in the Core Rulebook as a throwaway line in the description of Eox – “some come seeking necrografts, undead prosthetics that are often cheaper than cybernetics”. Well… here they are. You can get a necrograft version of an existing augmentation, or the Armory gives you undead-specific choices, such as the Black Heart, which gives you the environmental bonuses of armor and increased saves against most things that affect the living (sleep, paralysis, etc.). Better read the paperwork, though – the minute you install one of these, you gain the necrograft subtype, which makes you kinda-sorta undead. (Ummmmm… Rusty? Is there anything you want to tell us?)

I could go on – there are new class options for each class, “domestic” drones that perform non-combat chores (including a robo-mule), the magic and tech items really feel like they focused on broadening rather than deepening, etc. – but to answer the question – yes, it does feel like more than N+1 gear.

GENERAL QUESTION 2: The second thing I wanted to see going in was whether they could still fit in the “stealth world-building”. One thing I really appreciated about the Alien Archive (in particular) is the way Paizo snuck in world-building lore around the edges, so it wasn’t JUST a laundry list of creatures. Were they able to do something similar with this book?

Again, I think they hit the mark pretty well. For a prime example, let’s go back to those necrografts. Did you know it’s possible to get a necrograft for “free”? Now that sounds good and all, but to do that, you have to participate in a “corpse lease” program where if you die, you’re agreeing to let the Eoxians harvest your body to create more undead. PAY IT FORWARD! That just brought a huge smile to my face: not just because it’s the nightmare scenario of not reading the Terms and Conditions, brought to life, but also that it really fleshes out (pun semi-intended) the Starfinder universe.

Another example: weapon manufacturers. There are a few pages at the end of the “weapons” section that talk a little bit about various arms manufacturers of the Pact Worlds. At a nuts-and-bolts level, you can pay a small bump in weapon cost to get the in-game effect offered by a particular manufacturer. Ereus Teletech is based on lashunta telepathy, so their weapons have a psychic signature and can only be used by the owner. Ichihara Holdings has perfected their use of modular parts to such a degree that their weapons are easier to repair. Zeizerer Munition specializes in ammunition, translating to larger ammo capacities. And so on. The in-game effects are certainly useful, but you also get this neat little dump of world lore that I find fascinating.

So yes, you get lore… maybe not galore (even though it rhymes), but they did manage to pack some tidbits around the edges.

Those were the biggest general concerns, and I think the Armory delivered pretty well on those. I also had a couple “pet peeve” issues that have cropped up over the past year playing, and I wanted to see if maybe the new gear in the Armory shed some new light on those things.

PET PEEVE #1: Healing

I am still not crazy about healing in Starfinder. At least for our Dead Suns group, I know part of it is our group’s fault for not having a Mystic. I acknowledge that Stamina points are fairly easy to replenish and you’re probably not “supposed” to get into Hit Points as much as we do. But the economy of healing still feels a little off. Mk 1 Healing serums don’t do much at all, but the other levels of serum get too expensive, and there’s no real equivalent of the healing wand.

Did they address this at all with the Armory? Well… sorta. There still doesn’t appear to be a one-touch option like a healing wand, but there do seem to be a few items that add a regenerative impact to the short rest, so that the short rest gives you back stamina and health. The “Medical Interface” armor upgrade is one such item, as is the Regenerative Blood augmentation. On the poison/disease side, they did go with more of a wand-like solution, the Nanite Hypopen – different colors for different effects and strengths. So they get partial credit for this – they didn’t add my dream item (no fire-and-forget Star Trek hypospray), but they also didn’t ignore the issue entirely.

PET PEEVE #2: Fusions

I’m also not sold on the whole fusion system yet. Maybe it’s just dumb luck that so far, the fusions we’ve run across as loot were ones we couldn’t use, but the whole item level/fusion level/weapon type dance still feels a little clunky and frustrating. Maybe once I get the right one for my weapon at the right level, I’ll feel differently, but for now… ehhhh.

The content in the Armory… well, it doesn’t really change my feelings about the system, but there are some cool concepts for seals here. The Tracking seal makes it so that once you’ve damaged an enemy with that weapon, you have tracking within 1000 feet (as long as you’re still holding the weapon). The Conserving fusion refunds your ammo if you miss. Bombarding is a seal for grenade use, and it’s pretty freaky – you attach it to another weapon, it copies a grenade into extra-dimensional space, and you can fire a mystic copy of that grenade once a day.

The ones that piqued my interest are the ones that play around with spatial relationships – the Continuous fusion lets you extend the duration of a line weapon’s shot until the beginning of your next turn, so in the meantime, anyone that wants to go through those squares gets hit. (Or, if your beam is stopped by an obstacle, a teammate could move that obstacle and give the beam a chance to hit new targets.) The Rebounding fusion lets you bank a shot off one surface at a -4 penalty, so you can potentially get around total cover by shooting off a wall. I’m not sure the math is great on a -4 and it seems like it treads similar ground as the Seeking fusion from the core rules, but it’s a total hero move. (“You missed!” *P-TING!* “Did I?” Enemy drops.)

So final analysis, I have to admit I’m still lukewarm about fusions as a whole. Maybe I’ll get there, but nothing in the Armory really served as a game-changer or cast it in a new light.

THE FARLEY LIST

OK, having dispensed with my major points, I’m going to finish up by bouncing around the book and pointing out a few things that jumped out at me. You know – the jazz improv portion of the review, if you will.

  • Shell Knuckles: take a standard punching glove, load the knuckles with shotgun shells. Low-tech, but wonderfully violent.
  • Shadow Chains: chains that do cold/darkness damage. Originally weapons for Zon-Kuthon worshipers, but other people made copies that hopefully aren’t 100% evil. Very gothy.
  • Nanite Weapons: more of a class of weapon than a single weapon, you hit with these weapons, and they release nanites that burrow into the target and do damage. Some of them, you don’t even have to hit the target; if you get close, the nanites will cover the rest of the ground themselves.
  • Clearweave: more of a roleplaying thing, Clearweave armor can either be transparent (so people can see the outfit you’re wearing underneath) or can project patterns, logos, etc. Just in case you want your character to make money on the side renting out ad space.
  • Lashunta Mind Mail: armor that responds psychically to the user’s needs, it’s rigid when you’re about to be hit, flexible when you need more movement – that just strikes me as a cool concept no matter what the actual stats work out to.
  • Stag-Step Suit: Teleportation. It bears repeating.
  • X-Legs: An augmentation that lets you replace your legs with a four-legged spider-chassis. And yes, there’s a climbing version that lets you walk on walls and ceilings.
  • Restless Pineal Gland: an augmentation that lets you get your abilities back with 2 hours of rest, but only once per day.
  • Disintegration Hoop: It’s a Level 20 item that does 4d20 damage just putting an appendage in it, 14d20 if fully inside the hoop. I don’t need to know more than that, and neither do you.
  • Teleportation Puck: Activate the puck and throw it, and then you (and possibly others) can teleport to its location. Seems like it would be handy in combat to get flanking, or for overcoming certain obstacles (chasms, falls or climbs, etc.)
  • Software Imp: Think “sentient computer virus”. It’s an artificial personality that you can load on a computer that can cause all sorts of trouble – access information, can try to trick users into giving it further access, can run incorrect commands, etc.

FINAL ANALYSIS

In some form or another, if you’re playing Starfinder, you’re going to want this book on your shelf. If you’re a little skittish about paying full price for a fairly short hardcover (160 pages), the PDF at $10 is a total steal. Either way, get it and get started on all the characters you’re going to need to make use of all of this stuff.